Highlanders get to third round of playoffs with heartstopper over Cedarburg
Homestead travels to unbeaten Southwest
Mequon - The howl coming from the Homestead football team's sideline Friday late in the fourth quarter of the Highlanders intense WIAA Division 2, Level 2 playoff battle with rival Cedarburg was simple: "One more stop and we win this game!"
But that command was easy to say and much harder to execute.
And then, in stepped the Highlanders all-world defensive end Ryan Stendler. With just over a minute to play and Homestead clinging to a 21-18 lead and the tenacious Bulldogs sitting with a third and 5 from the 50-yard line, Stendler ripped through the right side and sacked Bulldogs quarterback Mike Mojica for a critical 10-yard loss.
The Bullodogs spent their final timeout and the subsequent desperation fourth and 15 was off target, though some on the Cedarburg bench could be heard shouting for an interference call that was never to come as the Highlanders hung on for the win.
"We were tired," said Stendler, noting that the Bulldogs ran 65 plays to the Highlanders' mere 42, "but that late in the game, intensity just took over, so you don't feel it (the fatigue). You just try to fill in the gaps. On that play, I just dipped under (the tackle). They were rolling out to that side all game and I finally got him (Mojica)."
In the mind of the Highlanders' legendary defensive line coach Tom Fugate, the play was reminiscent of the great all-state Homestead defensive tackle Donté Phillips and his great stop of a Germantown running back on a two-point conversion that would have beaten the Highlanders in a game back in 2010.
When asked if the excellent coaching players like Stendler and Phillips receive helps them execute in moments like that, Fugate just chuckled and said, "It always helps to have good athletes."
Because of those athletes, and the career game of senior quarterback Jake Laihinen, the Highlanders (9-1 overall) advance to Level 3 of the playoffs for the first time since the state championship season of 2008.
In each of the last three years, Homestead has come up short in the second round. The Highlanders visit Green Bay Southwest (10-0) at 4 p.m. Saturday.
"It's a nice feeling," said Stendler of the breakthrough. "People were thinking it wasn't the same old Homestead, but now I think we're back."
But not without some effort, as Cedarburg outgained Homestead, 313-267, and had a big advantage in time of possession.
"It's always nice to have some success in the playoffs," said Highlanders coach Dave Keel, who's been the author of three state championships in the last 14 seasons.
And in earning that success, teams need breaks and big stops.
Capitalizing on breaks
Stendler and safety Riley Pelisek helped in the stops category, and Laihinen, the converted wide receiver a year ago, helped in making the most of the Highlanders' key breaks.
The first break came early as a shanked Cedarburg punt put the Highlanders in business at the Bulldogs' 26-yard line. On the first play, Laihinen was the center of some prime-time chicanery as he faked what looked like a trap play, holding the ball in the running back's belly for as long as he could.
Only when it was too late and Laihinen was scooting down the left sideline with a full escort of blockers in front of him did the Bulldogs realize that it was a ruse.
Laihinen went into the end zone for an easy 26-yard touchdown run and a 7-0 lead at the 8:37 mark of the first quarter.
"We saw something in the films that we thought might work on them," Laihinen said, "and then we took advantage of it."
After Cedarburg (7-3) ground out a 14-play, 63-yard TD march that ended with a 5-yard run by Ben McComis for the tying touchdown early in the second quarter, Laihinen led the Highlanders back down the field to seize the lead again.
On a second and 8 play from the Bulldogs 31, he executed almost exactly the same play, this time at the 10:17 mark of the second quarter that gave the Highlanders a 14-7 lead.
"Those kind of plays, you're not sure how things are going to work out," Keel said, "but it was time to put in the next step (of the offense). It's supposed to look like a trap play, but Jake (Laihinen) is such a good magician with the ball."
He had a chance to prove that point again with less than a minute to go in the half as the Highlanders defense forced a fumble that end David Pfaff recovered on the Cedarburg 48. Two plays later, Laihinen put the ball where only senior end Darius Cross could reach.
Cross plucked the ball off the top of his defender's helmet, regained his footing and rumbled in from 34 yards outs with 42 seconds left in the first session, making it 21-10.
A play later, Highlanders linebacker David Anderson landed on another Cedarburg fumble at the Bulldogs 40, though the drive stalled. The defense came up big again on the first possession of the second half, when Cedarburg's 13-play, 54-yard drive ended in a 27-yard field goal attempt by Nick Plachinski that went wide left.
Pelisek's tackle big in goal-line stand
The important play on the sequence was provided by the safety Pelisek, when on first and goal from the Homestead four, he knifed through the line clean and buried back Hudson Walton for a six-yard loss.
But a defensive stop later, the Bulldogs had the ball back in their hands again and this time they went 81 yards in seven plays, as Mojica hit Andy Jones with an 11-yard TD pass and when Walton ran a sweep for the two-point conversion. It was suddenly 21-18 with 9:15 left.
However, when needed, the Highlanders offense came up with an important time-killing drive, consuming close to six minutes of time on 12 plays and advancing to the Cedarburg 6 on first and goal.
But two penalties moved the Highlanders back to the 18 on fourth and goal, and a pass from Laihinen to Jack Popp left Homestead less than a yard from a clinching TD.
With the crowd howling on both sides, the Bulldogs had to move from their own one with just 3:37 play, but they had all three timeouts. Mojica got them out to the 50, setting up the final drama.
"That was a big sense of relief," said Laihinen, as he witnessed Stendler's pivotal sack in the final seconds.
In Stendler's mind, somebody simply had to do it.
"I knew there some of us who really needed to step up (going into this year)," he said. "So I did a lot of lifting and I tried to become a leader on the defensive line. I knew what was expected of me."
Highlanders back into third round
Former Packer Bryce Paup coaches Southwest
UP NEXT: Homestead (9-1) at Green Bay Southwest (10-0) at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Trojans were Division 2 state semifinalists a year ago before losing to eventual D2 runner-up Waterford. Homestead coach Dave Keel calls the Trojans "big, fast and very talented. Real big kids."
They have a staunch defense that allowed only 32 points in the first half all season and average 33 points a game. They did struggle in the first two rounds of the playoffs against Oshkosh North (14-7) and Pulaski (27-25) but Keel is taking those outcomes with a grain of salt. "What we found interesting was that Pulaski ran 85 plays against them," he said. "Anytime you get above 60 that's a lot, but they are gifted defensively and use a lot of different kids." Three backs have over 400 yards rushing for Southwest while quarterback Matt McMahon has completed 33 passes for 502 yards and six TDs. Nathan Paup, the coach's son, has 15 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.
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